Chestnut trees are worth your time.
Perhaps you’ve never eaten a chestnut, but they taste great both raw and cooked. This past October, I bought about 125 pounds of chestnuts. We saved 100 as tree seed, and ate the rest of them. The nuts take on a wide range of complex flavors such as maple syrup, buttery walnuts, sweet corn, or “sugar snap peas with a hint of butterscotch.” Chestnuts are the only nut that is high in carbohydrate, and aside from being incredibly enjoyable to eat whole, they can be used to make pancakes, pastas, crepes, breads, and even smoothies. “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire.” Badgersett Farm in Minnesota is where I first put a handful of chestnuts on a bed of coals. S’mores pale in comparison. From Minnesota to Chile, Florida, The Canary Islands, Italy, Turkey, China, and Japan, chestnuts are a global delicacy. We can install chestnut orchards on your property, or a property you manage.
The American Chestnut
The United States once had a booming chestnut industry and a thriving chestnut culture. In 1904, a parasitic fungus known as the Chestnut Blight arrived in the New York botanical gardens, and swiftly killed 4 billion American Chestnut trees. The American Chestnut, castanea dentata, is a towering forest tree, much like a red oak, while the Chinese Chestnut, castanea mollissima, is a shorter tree that produces larger, flavorful nuts. See the juxtaposition of American and Chinese Chestnuts at right. Photo credit to Casey Dahl.
Across the globe, people love chestnuts.
Globally, the demand for chestnuts vastly exceeds the supply. Italy, Northwest Spain, and Turkey have historically been hot spots for chestnut production, but the chestnut blight has spread throughout Europe as well. Nonetheless, the chestnut culture is strong, and Europeans want to buy more chestnuts than there are chestnuts being grown. The European Chestnut, castanea sativa, is not blight-resistant. Consequently, blight-free locations such as Chile and Oregon, and regions that grow castanea mollissima, the Chinese Chestnut, have a comparative advantage in production. In the year 2000, a group of forward-thinking Chilean agronomists and farmers introduced the European Chestnut to Chile to satisfy the Northern Hemisphere’s off-season demand. They have been extremely successful, and their nurseries cannot keep up with the demand for trees, never mind nuts. Here in the cold, humid, midwest and northeast United States, we can grow Chinese chestnuts, and various pockets of growers satisfy our own domestic demand.
The United States' Chestnut Industry in 2016
Chestnut hotspots in the United States include Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa. In October of 2016, my friend Jeremy Kaufman and I toured orchards and cooperatives in Iowa and Ohio, and spoke with growers, aggregators, and processors, so this information is up to date and not hearsay. At Red Fern Farm in Wapello, Iowa, Bosnian immigrants drive hours to pick the chestnuts off the ground. We met a family that had driven six hours from Minneapolis to do so. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean immigrants are also chestnut fanatics, and Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers, a cooperative just south of Iowa City, gets ceaseless demand from New York City. The Rt. 9 Cooperative in Carrollton, Ohio confirmed that it truly is a seller’s market: they process 100,000 lbs. of nuts per year, and sell every last nut.
A large amount of demand comes from recent immigrants that grew up eating chestnuts. Chestnut culture in the United States has largely died out, but it’s still here. We sing about them, but we’ve largely forgotten about chestnuts. We now have access to blight-resistant trees, and it’s time we brought them back.
In Iowa, a 12-year-old chestnut tree will produce 40 lbs., of nuts. That amounts to roughly 1,200 nuts, depending on the size. In (Northern) New England, we see shorter growing seasons and frequently have heavier soils, so I won’t kid you and say that we’d see the same amount of production here after 12 years. Nonetheless, Chestnut trees are a great investment. You-pick, wholesale, and retail prices are currently at $2.50/lb, $3.40/lb And $10/lb respectively. This past fall, City Market in Burlington, Vermont was selling Chestnuts from Italy for $9.99 per lb.
Let us assume a humble farm-gate price of $5/lb, and a yield of 40 lbs of nuts per-tree per-year from years 15-30 (and beyond). That amounts to $200 per tree, annually. Click on the image at right to zoom in on the tree behind me, and notice the large quantity of burrs on the tree.
Above is a simplified table of potential revenues from a Chestnut Orchard. The yellow row of cells displays the year after the trees were planted. The green row displays potential revenue from nut sales in that year, at a humble price of $5 per lb. The blue row shows the present value of those yields, at the given interest rate. For those unfamiliar with finance, the "present value" of a cash flow is what an amount of money you will receive at at future date, is worth today. $100 in your pocket today is worth more than $100 given to you in two years, because you can use that money to create value for yourself and others in the meantime. The interest rate is based on how much value you could create during a given period of time. The "value today," in bold, is the sum total of the present value of the chestnut trees over the next 30 years.
"Are Chestnuts right for me?"
Hopefully, but not necessarily. Chinese chestnuts do best with fertile, well-drained, loose soil, but this is really an unfair statement to make: most trees do best with great soil. We don’t all own sandy loam that is 8% organic matter, so we have to make the best out of what we have. Luckily, soil maps are readily available, and we can create an overlay of your property to locate an ideal planting site. That being said, chestnuts do not like saturated soil. At right, you can see a photo of a low spot in a chestnut orchard: there are no trees where the water collects.
We'd like to stress that rows of trees need not take the place of the crops you grow and the animals you raise. Farmers across the world intercrop trees with grains, vegetables, and pastured livestock. Even if it involves planting rows of chestnuts 300 feet apart, we’re confident that we can create a system that will work for you.
Animals must be fenced out of young trees, but in management-intensive grazing systems, this shouldn't be a problem. At right is a photo of rows of chestnuts and pasture in Chile.
Photo credit: Casey Dahl
Harry in front of a mature chestnut tree
Chestnuts do not like wet valleys.
An Argentine peso, a quarter, and a chestnut
Rows of commercial chestnuts in Chile
Young trees at 20x20-ft. spacing at Red Fern Farm in Iowa